Thursday, 27 October 2011

European Affairs





As the elected heads of Europe were corralled in some unpleasant Brussels conference room with, as Mrs Trefusis calls it, "Trusthouse Forte décor and individually wrapped speculoos" to prop up the Eurozone with a packet of Mikados and several cubic metres of emissions tested hot air, I am posting something Relevant and Timely.

Because yesterday, so that you don't have to, Beatrice and I went to the shiny new European Parliament visitors' centre. It is called the "Parlamentarium", presumably reasoning that some kind of pseudo-Latin name was the best way to avoid tetchy, language-based unpleasantness. Good luck and godspeed, Parlamentarium, you big old pile of money rendered into touch-screens on qualified majority voting!

The Parlamentarium is made of glass, flags, pulped Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee position papers and the iced, sculpted, tears of interns*. You enter through a door made from Jerzy Buzek's old ties* and smiling, be-scarved, moonie apparatchiks greet you, multilingually. Then you have to go through the security barriers that are, reassuringly, staffed by the same grumpy, disapproving bastards you find at the entrance to any European Union institution.

Beatrice asked for the Latvian version of the interactive, iphone based multimedia guide. One of the many hundreds of smiling, be-scarved moonie apparatchiks handed her a guide. She frowned at it.

"This is Lithuanian".

"Oh!" said the scarf lady taking it back with a cheery laugh and arsing around with some buttons until another flag appeared on the screen. "Yes! I always get those confused".

Undaunted by this slur to Latvian, we continued, first examining a (frankly rather dull) scale model of the Strasbourg parliament, then sinking deeper into the bowels of the glamorously named "Willy Brandt building", past many, many, many screens. I tried to listen to the audio commentary, but I couldn't get my CTU Jack Bauer earpiece to stay in my ear. I mean, I really couldn't, it was technically, biologically, physically impossible. Are my ears in breach of the Directive on External Auditory Biological Equipment Proportions (EC/2011/159)? Will enforcement proceedings be launched against my ears? Would I find out at some point in the Parlementarium?? In the first instance, I had to resort to just sort of lamely holding it against the side of my head when I could be bothered. Images appeared on our touchscreens as we walked along, as if by magic. Slightly boring magic.

On the mezzanine, we were able to see some pictures of the Second World War, and some pages from the actual, original EU treaty. Or maybe not. It might have been the the Potsdam Agreement. I was a bit distracted by the fact that all the text on walls and freestanding panels was sort of blurred, with all the different language versions of the signage displayed in a sort of overlapping, confusing, liable-to-induce-epileptic activity fashion. You can see it here, on the heading to the website. Also, if you touched your exciting multimedia toy to the key icon next to exhibits, it told you stuff, in a language of its choosing which might or might not be the one you had selected. Or it might be Lithuanian. They are easily confused. There was other stuff, but we were going quickly, in the hope of bigger and better interactivity. Down the stairs again, about a thousand miles under the Place de Luxembourg, we reached a room full of pictures of MEPs, and brochures for the political groupings. It was looking intensely promising.




Next, there was a bank of screens featuring pictures of the heads of the political grouping, each with some kind of artefact of their choosing, displayed in a glass box. We particularly liked Martin Schulz, leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats and his piece of rock. We stared at it for a long time.

"Why he has a rock? To show he is tough like rock?"

"Could it be a bit of the Berlin wall? Is he even GERMAN? I'm lost"

"Eh".

Rebecca Harms had an old wallet. We didn't know why she had that either since, by then, my multi-media genius pod was threatening "low battery", we could only get the text in Latvian. Instead, we watched Guy Verhofstadt on mute, fascinated.

"The teeth!"

"You could fit several member states into that gap".

After that, we entered the Exciting Multimedia Area, where you could push around a sort of .. trolley over a map of Europe and watch small factual films on the trolley screen.



The ceiling was my favourite bit of the whole place, featuring what I think must have been a map of Europe in pretty, spherical blue LEDs.




"Move sensor to capture zone? Eh?" We were a bit bewildered by the Highly Informative Trolley, and a Scarved Operative had to explain to us. We rolled over to Riga to check it out. A short film about the integration of economic migrants kicked off. B and I watched, B frowning more and more deeply with each image.

"That's not Riga".

"That's not Riga".

"What the fuck? That's not Riga".

"Ok, that one's Riga".

Next we went to play an interactive legislation game in a round room entirely surrounded by a bank of screens showing action shots from the "hemicycle" (why?) of the European Parliament. This was my other favourite part: it was quite hypnotic being entirely surrounded entirely by parliamentarians, trying to spot the ones that were yawning when they were filmed (several, mainly Brits). In the interactive game, I managed to engineer a compromise over some tricky environmental legislation by pressing a random combination of buttons, whilst Nigel Farage's ruddy face was looming at me from a full 360°, and I can tell you, this is no mean feat. I have a new respect for our European lawmakers. I was very pleased with myself, actually.

Beatrice pointed out her favourite MEP, an elderly lady with slightly Fabiola-esque hair and a floral jacket, to me on the screens of sensory overload.

"She is Luxembourgeoise. She loves bees. Whenever bees are discussed she must be present".

There was another circular room featuring what appeared to be a selection of chairs from the whole of Europe and The People Of Europe telling you about their lives. We were having major audio difficulties at this point, so we did not get to hear about the man whose life changed when he had his second child, or test out the quite comfortable looking leather sofa (we were not sure which member state it represented, but we quite fancy moving there).

We failed to find the special children's section, and we did not have two and a half hours to take part in the role playing game. Instead, we found ourselves directed to the final screens where we could express our wishes for the future of the European parliament.

Me:


Beatrice:


Both our ideas rendered in pretty colours on a large screen:


The shop was tiny but quite good, though singularly lacking in Euro-kitsch and majoring to a bewildering degree in candles. There were also a great deal of starred scarves, which were actually rather nice and soft, but also €55. I bought four miniature advent calendars made to look like pills, Beatrice bought a passport cover. Then she cast an expert eye over the café and declared it non-subsidised (but quite cheap, at least).

Really, the Parlamentarium is probably the best, shiniest, most informative visitor's centre you could make with such profoundly unpromising material and with the heavy weight of responsibility to make everything fair and balanced and representative. You can feel, viscerally, leadenly, the hundreds of man-hours, the weeks and months of debate and compromise that has gone into each exhibit and predictably, this doesn't make for the most fun of experiences (though arguably, that does fairly accurately replicate the EU lawmaking process). I mean, a 'whack a mole' style exhibit featuring MEPs might have helped. "Would my children enjoy the Parlamentarium?" ask the Frequently Asked Questions on the website, touchingly. Their answer is:

"Yes. There is something for children in each section of the Parlamentarium".

My answer is:

"Possibly, if they have been kept in a darkened cupboard for a week with only the Works Directive for company".

If my own children are very, exceptionally bad one day, I might take them.

I suppose, if you are fourteen and your school forces you to go there on a trip (this is the only plausible target audience I can identify), it will be better than double maths.

The verdict: Better than double maths. Unless you really enjoy quadratic equations.

The Parlamentarium
Batiment Willy Brandt
Rue Wiertz 60
Free Entry
Open 7 days a week, more hours than you could possibly imagine. Or want. Ever.

*Disclaimer: may contain lies.

14 comments:

frau antje said...

I used the word Let (Latvian) to advance in a recent prosecco-fueled game of Het Grote Taalspel (yeah, so what? What did YOU get for YOUR birthday?).
http://www.scalaleukerleren.nl/taalspel.htm

Other than that it feels like my sense of European unity is dead as a doornail. You and Beatrice jumped up in unison upon leaving, I trust.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=w_77SKmPNrc

Anonymous said...

When I visited Brussels again last summer, me and my sister made a special trip to the European Parliament and its surrounds. If this had been available I would definitely have gone. I'm 21 and have not that distant memories of double maths. I think it should also be mentioned that me and brussels have very bad history. I like to not exceed my poor judgement of the place by visiting places of interest or beauty. However I also love the EU quite a lot (completely unfounded, sentimental attachment ....probably based on a mild irrational childhood fear that my mother will be deported back to Germany from the UK if we ever left it).

Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes said...

Thank you for bringing this new device for boring my children to tears to my attention. I will take full advantage of it.

Beatrice said...

Delicious minutes of ze trip to propoganda land. Thank you, Waffle.

About the supposedly euro kitch boutique: I think it would be interesting to enquire on which grounds this German 'souvenir' boutique won the tender. GraaAh.

Anonymous said...

Long live the Unicorns!
A non-European, non religious -however only viewed by others as non christian - who lived in Brussels for 8 years, never visited the parliament- AHGRIUM, only because , Ashtablieft, didn't belong!!!
Thank you for your piercing insight.

demon w sieci said...

talking about exhibitions, history, new-member countries and so on... ( by the way, I've been following you blog since about a year or so, like it very much, especially that I'm a wife of an eurodrone - no, I can't say that about my own husband ! -and a mother of two boys, 11 and 9 - so, I can sort of relate to ...) , there is an inetersting interactive exhibiton about communism and solidarity movement . I know, I know. sounds bornig, but my older kid went to see it and said it was cool. It's in French and English. It gives an interesting perspective and explanation on what was life about behind the Iron Curtain. Lots of games and quizes and a nice BD book as a gift at the end. http://solidarnosc.be/en/ Go with your kids (of course! ;-) might be ineteresting for them. (marta)

Alison Cross said...

Why oh why do they insist on making these things? Who sits in their office saying 'I *know* what will be hugely entertaining to visitors to our city....and it will only cost a FEW Million Euros.'

And then it gets funding?! That money could have been better spent on baling out Greece.

Are you still without a governing party?

Ali x

Sarah said...

"A 'whack a mole' style exhibit featuring MEPs might have helped" - still laughing!

We went to see the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh last weekend, and it's really rather lovely. The cafe was not particulalry inspired but did have Tunnocks tea cakes (yum, white plastic fluffy marshmallow!) and wafers. The gift shop was somewhat tartan-tastic and they'd even had their own tartan created in a rather pretty muted mauve colourway (I felt that had we been in Glasgow it would have been more retina searing).

Margaret said...

Hey! I loved quadratic equations. It was the only tolerable part of middle school.

Marie said...

Thanks for this exhibition review,Waffle. Still,I don't think I'll be going, don't want my kids to moan their whole life about "the day you took us to that useless european thing" (elaborated ,I guess, with taxpayers money), I don't think I will escape the school outing though...

Beside,There's already something like that in Mini Europe and my monsters labelled it uninteresting straight away (apart from a video game on a giant screen where you are supposed to catch,er,euros) you can't beat the space shuttle!

Anonymous said...

hahaha, been looking for ideas for going out with an old high school classmate who's making a stopover in brussels probably just to show herself off as the high-flying jetsetting career woman who's now working at one of the top two financial institutions of the world while moi got stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. the show-off actually wanted to check-in at the conrad, then chose somewhere else (just slightly less showy) coz it was closer to the grand place. merci, merci, merci, belgian waffles and parliamentarium (evil grin) :-). unless i'll be in a good mood then;-). then i might choose the natural sciences museum ;-).

Anonymous said...

oh, btw, curious 'bout what you'd make of the MAS, the new museum in anvers (eh oui). been wondering if it's as boring as it sounds. if you ever run out of punishment ideas and decide to take your descendants there ;-), would love to know what your last word is :). heard someone on the radio gushing about it, ('een frantalige' gushing about antwerp), she sounded as authentic as, well, out of inspiration here, the most un-authentic thing ever, even the interviewer sounded unimpressed. was probaly paid-to-gush.

Ron said...

A Commission official pointed me to your post claiming that the one I wrote about the Parlamentarium could never reach yours.

The official was right! Thanks for your post! :)

Anonymous said...

Ron, yours is way better